Wind and solar clash with energy reality

In the name of protecting the environment, some public and political leaders want most of our electrical energy to come from renewables. 

The reality is that wind and solar combined supply only 17 percent of electricity-generating capacity in the U.S. and even less globally. This has not deterred environmental organizations and some members of Congress from raising public expectations about renewables. A group of Democrats, led by Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez raises money for transgender youth on video game live stream Ocasio-Cortez responds to Aaron Sorkin directing young Dems to ‘stop acting like young people’ Ocasio-Cortez on Cardi B's feud with Tomi Lahren: Don't 'mess with Bronx women' MORE (D-N.Y.), is floating the idea of a “Green New Deal” calling for a transition to 100 percent renewable power.

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At the same time, 29 states are pressing ahead with renewable portfolio standards requiring utilities to produce designated levels of electricity from renewables.

Not only are renewable portfolio standards expensive and a burden on consumers, new research from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows they don’t always work in reducing carbon emissions. This is because there is enormous uncertainty about how quickly renewable systems can be built, what the cost will be and what the consequences will be for the electricity network. 

Worries about climate change don’t translate into solutions unless there is a realistic prospect of success in the U.S. and globally.

Those who disparage the use of coal forget that it accounts for 30 percent of America’s electricity generation and more than 40 percent of the world’s electricity supply. The implications of coal’s continuing importance in the United States and globally are enormous.

Abandoning coal to reduce emissions would not only be economically ruinous in large parts of the world, but simply impossible. The idea of expecting countries like China and India to quit the very fuel they continue to lean on for a secure supply of electricity makes no sense. Nor would it be wise to ban the construction of new coal plants in the United States. 

Because coal is the world’s energy mainstay, now is the time to reassess old ways of thinking about coal-fueled power plants. Recognizing coal’s importance, the Trump administration has rolled back an Obama-era regulation that required new coal plants to include systems for the capture and sequestration of carbon emissions. The technology for carbon storage has yet to be developed and demonstrated. If and when carbon storage becomes available, the decision to use the process — which greatly increases the cost of coal generation — should be made by electricity companies, not the government.

The United States holds the key to harnessing advanced coal technologies that could reduce global carbon emissions by as much as 21 percent, according to the National Mining Association. That’s equivalent to all of India’s energy-related carbon emissions. One innovative technology converts carbon emissions at a coal plant into useful products like reinforced concrete. Another is ultra-supercritical coal technology, a more efficient process for generating electricity that emits significantly less carbon than a conventional coal plant. 

But improvements to date in coal technology have barely scratched the surface of what is possible. Government energy research and development should focus on the kind of forward-looking, targeted coal technologies that boost plant efficiency and lower carbon emissions.

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None of these ideas promise to restore the environment to pre-industrial purity. Neither will a mistaken policy of raising public expectations about renewable resources. The United States can play a major role in the growing international market for new generating capacity by providing advanced technology for many new coal plants needed over the next few decades.

Economic reality — not wishful thinking about costly green power — ought to influence decisions vital to the future of the United States and the world. 

Renewables are far from a cure-all. Most experts agree that an all-of-the-above approach to limiting carbon emissions — including nuclear power, natural gas and advanced coal technology — is the answer, if we expect to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius in line with the Paris climate accord. 

It’s time to drop unrealistic expectations about renewables and instead embrace technological changes in our use of major energy sources to ensure that we can maintain a livable environment.

J. Winston Porter, Ph.D., is a national energy and environmental consultant, based in Atlanta, GA. He is a former assistant administrator of the EPA in Washington DC.